Join Up…

by J.T. Ellison

Navigating writer’s organizations can be frustrating and expensive. At press time, I belong to an alphabet soup of parent organizations — International Thriller Writers (ITW), Mystery Writers of America (MWA), Sisters in Crime (SinC), Romance Writers of America (RWA), International Association of Crime Writers (IACW), The Authors Guild and Women’s National Book Association (WNBA). I have an application in for one more, a group I’m very excited about.

But that’s not all. Then we have the paid subgroups – Sisters in Crime Middle Tennessee Chapter, Music City Romance Writers (MCRW), RWA-PASIC, and the non-charging RWA-PAN. Whew. That’s a chunk of change every year. I thought it would be helpful to break down the expenses and have a frank discussion about just what writer’s organizations do, how they can help your career, and whether they’re worth the money.

First, the cost. It’s a tough nut to swallow, these fees. But organizations have to run, and you get your money’s worth.

ITW — was $95 annually, now it’s free if you meet the publishing criteria, a bold and brilliant move that will definitely make a difference when it comes down to weighing your options.

MWA – $95

RWA – $100 first year, $75 after that

  • PASIC – $35
  • Music City Romance Writers – $25

Sisters in Crime – $40

  • Sisters in Crime Middle Tennessee Chapter – $10

IACW – $60

WNBA – $25

Authors Guild – $90 first year (sliding scale after that, but most continue to pay $90)

Unnamed Organization – $110

So for the 2008 fiscal year, I spent nearly $700 for the privilege of belonging to these writer’s organizations. Gulp.

Some of that money I feel is very well spent, some of it I don’t feel like I’m getting my money’s worth and will let lapse after this year. That’s becoming increasingly true for the subgroups, only because I can’t seem to find the time to hit local meetings (in the case of one group, I literally have not been in town the third Saturday of the month, their regular meeting date, since I joined the group six months ago. Now that’s sad.)

Lots of cash spent, and for what? Outside of the financial burden, what do writer’s organizations do? Why in the world would anyone spend $700 a year to be involved?

There’s an easy answer to the latter. Camaraderie. Most groups have free list serves where you can get to know your fellow authors, ask advice, find sources for research, make invaluable networking connections, and in general learn the industry. Some encourage volunteerism (ITW in particular) and that’s a brilliant way to meet your compatriots, especially the higher echelons. (Last year at Thrillerfest I escorted Vince Flynn. Now that’s was cool.) Most of these organizations are purely volunteer driven (MWA & RWA aside, they do have paid staff, though MWA’s is minimal) and rely on their membership to run things. If you’re the kind of person who likes to get their hands dirty, who likes to lead, to set programming, to mix and mingle with the big dogs, volunteering with an organization can be an incredibly fulfilling experience.

It’s also a massive time suck. Massive.You see how many groups I belong to. It’s too much. You can’t be an effective active participant if you’re spread too thin. And much more importantly, I found I couldn’t keep the level of my writing in tip top shape if I spent my time organizing and volunteering, and as such have stepped back. I’ll be honest, that kind of stuff isn’t my cuppa anyway. I’ve never wanted to be the head of an organization, hold leadership positions. I want to be a writer, first and foremost. It’s taken me quite a while to stop being an apologist about that.

Even if you don’t volunteer, there are still many ways to help your chosen group. Spread the word about your favorite organization, encourage new writers to join up, link to them on your website, plug the organizations at signings and events. Attending the conferences and events they put on is vital too — MWA has the Edgars, ITW has Thrillerfest, RWA has RWA National and Romantic Times… you get the idea. Even if you’re not the type to run for an office, there are plenty of ways to be involved. Even something as simple as offering to moderate a panel, judging a contest or hosting a breakfast with the booksellers can make a huge difference to the organizers.

To answer the former question though, that’s where I’m a bit murky. What do writer’s organizations do?

Some, like Sisters in Crime, have a clear mandate — to help level the playing field between female and male writers. Author’s Guild is the gold standard, fighting to keep contracts fair, giving legal advice, and being an all around resource, plus offering health insurance, (which I wish could be expanded, but hey, it’s a start!) There would be nothing more valuable in my mind than an organization finding a way to provide real and affordable health insurance to their members. There are a lot of writers who keep day jobs for health insurance. Think of the productivity levels if health insurance was offered across the board.

ITW and MWA are more geared to promotion of their members, (ITW in particular is reaching thousands of people, readers and writers alike through their website and newsletter,) and RWA has been a strong voice in the romance world for decades.These organizations seek to educate their members, and that’s the invaluable part of all of this, especially for new writers.They also give awards – RWA has a slew of them, but the Rita is their biggie, MWA has the Edgars (I had the honor of serving as a judge last year, and though it took an incredible amount of time, it was one of the most fulfilling things I’ve done to date.) ITW has the Thriller Awards.

All of the above organizations have a newsletter, though ITWs is always online. It’s a great way to get updated on your peers, their goings-on, and news from the head office. And many, many subgroups have individual conferences. (What conferences to attend is a whole different post, as is the discussion of earned media, ie: free media exposure — the social networking sites and free list serves.)

Here’s the beautiful thing. If you’re not yet published, you can still join these organizations – ITW, MWA and RWA have associate memberships for as yet unpublished members, Sisters in Crime doesn’t have a published requirement for membership at all. I joined MWA long before I had a book deal, and will always remember Margery Flax, the budda guru executive manager of MWA, sharing in my joy when I called to upgrade from associate to active.

I was a part of Sisters in Crime well before I had an agent — and I belonged to four facets of that organization — the Guppies (the soon to be published group that was an invaluable resource for me) the Internet Chapter, the Middle Tennessee Chapter and National. Sisters in Crime got me where I am today, no doubt. I learned more about the industry on those list serves and through the meetings in town than anything else I’ve done, and I’ve made friendships that will last a lifetime.

Now that’s what a writer’s organization should be, in my mind. A place to be educated, to make friendships, to be surrounded by like-minded people who celebrate your successes and pick you up after your defeats. It’s a delicate balance, and one that not every organization is capable of fostering. And the support should be dynamic, altering along with the times, helping you grow as a writer.

So who do you join if you only have room in your budget for one organization? I say pay attention to your genre. If you write thrillers, join ITW. If you’re more traditional mystery, look to MWA. Sisters in Crime isn’t just for cozies, (nor just for women, obviously) but there are a lot of writers who write them there. Romance your forte? RWA is your home, and possibly the most well-established of them all. Need all-around advice on writing and the industry? Join the Author’s Guild.

And remember, there’s always next year if you want to try something different, or branch out into additional groups.

There are so many options, you should be able to find a niche. Writing in a vacuum is possible, but it’s much more fun to connect at the virtual water cooler, then cement those friendships in person.

I know there are many more organizations I’ve missed — Horror Writers of America in particular, simply because I’ve had no experience with them to date. I’d love to hear from other writers on this one.

What organization gives you the best bang for your buck? Which gives the most camaraderie, the best feeling of inclusiveness? What should a writer’s organization give to their membership? When do you walk away from an organization that isn’t giving you what you’re looking for?

And readers, do you belong to any of the writer’s organizations? Do you have a specific reader centric organization that you participate in?

Wine of the Week: A fine bottle of Four Sisters Shiraz, from Southeastern Australia, shared with hubby for his birthday, served by the lovely James at one of Nashville’s best kept secrets — Jimmy Kelly’s Steakhouse.

21 thoughts on “Join Up…

  1. Wilfred Bereswill

    Great topic JT. I know SinC and our local St. Louis Writers Guild certainly helped me through the process. Our local Sisters in Crime now unofficially goes by Sisters and Misters in Crime since our male membership has climbed.

    You mention the genre specific groups, but I’ve found cross genre groups can offer things too. I have PDD. I can admit it. That’s Poetry Deficit Disorder. I don’t get it. But I’ve come to find out that learning how to write a little poetry can actually help us write prose. I wouldn’t necessarily get that in a genre specific group.

  2. J.D. Rhoades

    I belong to ITW, and, since the formidable Margery Flax tracked me across the country and finally hunted me down in New York two years ago, to MWA. I have to say, MWA’s done more actual good for my career, but ITW’s getting better.

  3. Kathryn Lilley

    I belong to ITW, MWA, and Sisters in Crime, and find them all to be incredibly valuable! They provide opportunities for support, friendship, and networking. For example, the San Joaquin chapter of SiC invited me to speak at their meeting on Saturday August 2: forward to meeting lots of new friends! Best, Kathryn

  4. R.J. Mangahas

    Great Post JT. I myself belong to the MWA and considering ITW. So far, I’ve met some great people and made a few contacts. Although it’s kind of tough for me to make those meetings, but I try to squeeze in a convention or two, time (and money) willing.

  5. ArkansasCyndi

    I belong to RWA and six sub-RWA chapters. And you’re right about the suck on time that being an officer or volunteer takes. In 2006, I was the founding president of the Arkansas chapter of RWA. That involved more paperwork than you can imagine. The next year, I volunteered to be newsletter editor. Gulp. This year? I allowed others to volunteer and gain those valuable lessons.

  6. Zoë Sharp

    Hi JT

    Great post and a very interesting subject. I was an active volunteer of a UK writing association for nearly five years and eventually it wore me down.

    Having said that, when I first joined, being able to go along and meet the people who’d inspired me to write in the first place was just wonderful. Going to conventions has made me some of the best friends I have.

  7. Louise Ure

    What a thoughtful — and timely — post, JT!

    I’m not a member of RWA, but do belong to all the other groups you’ve mentioned, and have gotten a lot out of them.

    Right now, though, I’m on the Long Range Planning Committee for MWA, and we’re taking a good look at how to make the organization even better than it is.

    I’d love suggestions from any commenters here, or feel free to write me at:

  8. MF Makichen

    JT,First, I have to say it was great meeting you at Thrillerfest!

    I belong to MWA, RWA, Kiss of Death (RWA online chapter), SinC and I’m going to join ITW. This was a great post because it made me realize it’s time to re-evaluate all the mula I’m spending on dues. It is interesting to take a moment and analyze what role each organization plays in your professional life.

    What’s really nice is you don’t have to be a member to attend the conferences offered by the various national organizations. I went to Thrillerfest a couple of weeks ago and it was great. Talk about a plethora of amazing writers in attendance–it was a fantastic event.

  9. JT Ellison

    Mary-Frances — hi! Good to see you in New York too.

    I didn’t even start listing the free groups I belong too, that would have taken all day. It’s a great way to get your feet wet, then decide where your home needs to be.

    Louise — HEALTHCARE! I know that’s nearly impossible unless we unionize, and that isn’t a situation that would be good either. But with your vision at MWA, we’re all in good hands.

  10. JT Ellison

    Zoe and Cyndi — you both have my unending respect for all you’ve done. Running these groups, working on the committees, is hard work. And for the many, many people who do it gratis — well, all of you deserve our deepest thanks.

    So an addendum to the post: send a thank you note to the conference organizers and your leadership recognizing their hard work. It’s always welcome and appreciated.

  11. JT Ellison

    R.J. I know what you mean. It’s hard to decide where you want to land. ITW dropping fees is going to make them a huge draw now.

    Kathryn, I agree. The friendships I’ve made will last throughout my career. It’s a wonderful experience.

    Dusty, that’s one thing I have to say in MWAs favor — they are active in their desires to grow and roll out the red carpet sometimes.

    Will, a great point. Cross-genre groups can be hugely beneficial to your career. That’s why I joined RWA. I’m not writing romances, but I knew I could get a great perspective and learn from the masters of the publishing industry. I like that’ you’re in the Poets corner. Haiku on, my friend.

  12. Pari Noskin Taichert

    This is a great topic, JT.

    Um, let’s see . . .MWA, ACWL, Novelists Inc, SinC (and two subchapters thereof including the one I founded in NM), have considered ITW but am not sure it’s a true fit. I’m also a current member of the National Federation of Press Women and the local NM chapter (I’m going to let this one lapse at the end of the year). There’ve been others too, but I can’t remember what they were.

    This year, I’m judging on JD’s committee for MWA, am the library liaison for our local SinC chapter, and just got roped into being the chair of the outreach committee for NinC. So, yeah, the volunteer work is something that takes time. Oh, and I do write the monthly Agents & Editors column for MWA’s newsletter too.

    I also helped with the PR for LCC last year and have done a ton of volunteer work for various conventions/conferences over the years.

    I feel that MWA is my professional organization, the trade org. I don’t know if I’ve gotten any “benefit” from membership but I can’t see NOT being a member. When I was a full-time public relations professional, I was a member of PRSA and had the same kind of feeling about that org.

    I adore Novelists, Inc. for the camaraderie and the incredible amount of knowledge I can tap within its membership; it’s the one that is giving me the most personal satisfaction right now.

    SinC is important for its mission, but I have had questions about its continued relevance for someone with a smaller publisher that is traditional but off the beaten track. That question remains very much in the air.

    ACWL is a cool group of people, so it’s the networking thing again.

    In all, I’m not sure about writers’ orgs at all. I certainly know many, many people in our field now. I’ve given many of these organizations a lot of time and energy because it was the right thing to do — a kind of paying it forward — but am now, like you, JT, really looking at whether the money and time are truly well spent.

    The jury is definitely out.

  13. JT Ellison

    Pari, that’s it exactly. I can’t imagine not being a part of the big three, but if I’m going to be a part of another group, I’m looking for more. Something different. Something that will benefit me as a writer as well as help me pay it forward.

  14. Jake Nantz

    Ms. Ellison, Thank you so much for this post. I’ve wondered which organizations I should look into when I get the pub creds and $$ (have neither right now) to devote. This post has helped me a lot in terms of where I’ll start looking when the time is right.

  15. JA Konrath

    I’m a member of ITW. Everything else I let lapse.

    When a writing organization can offer me something I can’t get for myself, I’ll consider plunking down some membership dollars.

  16. Roberta Isleib

    Excellent discussion, especially since we’re all pinching pennies these days and maybe not as free to travel as we might have been. I belong to SinC, MWA, RWA, and the Authors Guild. I love Sisters in Crime–I served as president of the New England chapter and now I’m president of National. (Lore has it that you lose a book during that year, and I’m afraid it’s true. I’ve eaten, drunk, and dreamed Sisters this last twelve months…)

    For me, the most important things the organization does are the monitoring project (including outreach to reviewers about their female/male review percentages,) the networking, and education. Our listserv is booming this year, partly because of a new program called mentor Mondays. We’ve had an impressive array of experts answer member questions–James Frey (not the memoir writer!) is coming in October. And our publishers’ summit in May was a big success.

    I wish I had known to join Guppies when I was just getting started–they are the best beginners organization I’ve ever come across.

    Sorry, enough proselytizing! I’m a believer, as the Monkees would have said.

    Roberta Isleib

  17. I.J.Parker

    I only belong to PWA (Private Eye Writers of America) because they are the only ones who have ever done anything for me, and because the people who run it are generous, warm, supportive, unbiased, and totally committed to the genre.I certainly never found this to be true of MWA.I should add that my protagonist only occasionally qualifies as a P.I.).

  18. JT Ellison

    Ooh, IJ, I forgot the Private Eye Writers. Excellent suggestion. The ultra-niche groups seem to be very focused on their members, which is advantageous.

    Roberta, you’re doing a great job! SinC has a lot of facets that are incredibly useful and vital, and it’s especially good for unpublished writers.

    JAK — you’re an entity all to yourself.

    Mr. Nantz – please, call me JT. And you’re right to weigh your options, though I will say that many of these organizations will help you get published. ITW’s craftfest and agentfest are incredibly useful, and SinC guppies is a private group that discusses writing, agents, queries, etc. Invaluable.


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